A military handout photo of Thitu island in 2015. Locally known as Pag-asa, entailing hope in Filipino, Thitu is a tiny tree-studded settlement. A dilapidated runway takes up almost half the area. Photo: PAO, AFP, GHQ
Thitu, one of the biggest naturally occurring islands in the disputed South China Sea, is now dwarfed by Subi reef, 6km long. Residents say it glistens bright at night.
Eugenio Bito-onon, a former mayor who now lives off the island, spoke of a period when anglers could still going to see Subi. Chinese policemen, when they were in a good mood, occasionally greeted Filipino anglers inside the reef that previously had just a fort, helipad and lighthouse.
Our anglers would wave at the Chinese policeman and if he waved back, it means they could fish in the reef … They just started shooing us away from Subi reef in recent years, Bito-onon said.
Events have changed dramatically in the past five years. China signalled renewed aggressiveness in the South China Sea in 2012 when it took practical occupation of Philippine-owned Scarborough shoal in its bid to control the disputed seas.
It was an incident that prompted Manilas legal territory lawsuit against Beijing in The Hague. Chinas island house followed.
In July 2016, the court junked Chinas sweeping claims, but Beijing said it does not recognise the ruling and a newly installed Duterte, closer to China than his predecessor, has not attained much of the court verdict.
In April, he announced a plan to personally create the Philippine flag on Thitu and fortify it with barracks in festivity of Independence Day on 12 June, in the area the country calls West Philippine Sea.
But a week subsequently he cancelled. Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship I will not go there to create the Philippine flag, Duterte said at the time.
He instead sent his defence secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, to check on the situation in the island. His C130 plane received radio challenges from China four times.
However, it is not only China whose ships sometimes chase civilian boats. Thitu resident Aisa Balidan said she got a scare when a Vietnamese boat tailed their boat a few months ago as she returned to the island from mainland Palawan.
The residents consider these incidents isolated. They can always catch the next ship back to the mainland if they no longer want to live on the island. But why leave when chores are scarce on the two sides of the strait and residents here get subsidies from government?
Still, the hazard sometimes traverses their minds, especially when they hear in the media about tensions nearby. And all the time, the scene is set for a larger conflict.
Trumps chief strategist at the White House, Steve Bannon, told months before he entered office that there was no doubt the US and China will oppose a war within a decade over islands in the South China Sea.
Were going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years, he told in March 2016. Theres no doubt about that. Theyre taking their sandbars and building basically stationary aircraft carriers and putting weapons on those. They come here to the United States in front of our face and you understand how important face is and say its an ancient territorial ocean.
More lately, secretary of state Rex Tillerson said the US would deny China access to the seven artificial islands. Experts advised any siege would lead to war.
Residents of Thitu do not understand much about how Philippine chairwomen have constantly changed their strategies on dealing with China. But, living on the frontline of the dispute, they can measure the success or failure based on what they find.
They find China turn reefs into cities while their runway in Thitu get dilapidated over the years. The island doesnt even have a pier or a harbour.
We were the first to develop our island and build a runway. Now we are left behind, told Bito-onon. We are retreating while they are advancing. Our facilities are disintegrating out of neglect while our neighbours improve their own.
Carmela Fonbuena is a senior reporter at Rappler.com